The boundaries of the war in Yemen war are expanding beyond the northern Sa’ada governorate. For the first time, bombing is audible from Sana’a, the nation’s capital. Recent battles are among the bloodiest in memory.
After four years of armed conflict between the government and a group of Zaidi rebels, the war’s impact is spread far beyond the combatants and the field of combat. Military, judicial and civil policies targeting the rebels have precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Sa’ada and a civil crisis in the nation with rights groups protesting mass arrests and other tactics.
Yemen’s government is a military dictatorship. It allows more than one political party, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s GPC Party is in full control. The Zaidi rebels represent a Shia-related minority.
Opposition party leaders in Sa’ada condemned the surprise military bombing of Dhahian City in July, calling the tactic “an unprecedented crime.” In May, rebel spokesman Sheik Saleh Habrah said government shelling in Dhahian, Al-Mahader and al-Ghabair killed 30 civilians and wounded scores more. More than 85,000 Sa’ada residents fled indiscriminate government bombing and are internal refugees. Malnutrition is widespread among the 750,000 Sa’ada residents after a longstanding government blockade.
Casualties in the last month number in the hundreds. Aerial bombardment in Sa’ada and Amran was accompanied by direct engagement of forces. The Yemeni military is deploying helicopters, tanks, Hawn mortars and Katushkya rockets to target the Zaidi rebels, who are themselves well armed and often mingle among the civilian population.
Thousands have died since the fighting began in 2004, when security forces clashed with a small group of students protesting the U.S. military action in Iraq. The group was led by Zaidi cleric and Member of Parliament, Hussain al-Houthi, who was later killed by regime forces in what some claim was an ambush during a mediation session.
Both the military and the rebels’ ranks have swelled since the war began. The Houthi rebels grew from 400 fighters then to several thousand today. Many of the rebels’ newest recruits are not ideologically affiliated with the Houthist movement but motivated by anti-government sentiments and, in some cases, by financial reward. Many joined the rebellion in response to the bombardment of the governorate and a campaign of arbitrary arrests. Security forces also arrested dozens of soldiers who defected to the Houthis. Foreigners fighting on the rebels’ side purportedly include Somalis who joined for a $100 fee.
The official Yemeni armed forces inducted Salafi tribal fighters and jihadists into the campaign against the rebels. The paramilitary is led by Sheik Abdulmajid al-Zindani and Tariq al-Fadhili. Both men had personal relationships with Osama bin Laden in years past. Al-Zindani is classified by the US Treasury as a terrorist financier. Between 5,000 and 10,000 of these fighters are deployed by the state, some quite young and often without adequate military training.
President Saleh announced this week that the government is raising a “citizen’s army” of about 10,000 fighters. The recruitment drive is predominantly among Saleh’s Hashid tribesman and runs the risk of sparking an all-out tribal war or a cycle of tribal revenge killings. There also is a danger that this newly armed militia, organized ostensibly to support the government, eventually could compete with the state for power.
In Yemen, three peace agreements have collapsed since 2005 in part because the central government is not fully in control of state apparatuses. The July 2007 Qatar-sponsored agreement unraveled in January when the Yemeni military failed to vacate rebel homes and farms, and the rebels refused to descend from the mountains. In parts of the country, some military and security units function as personal armies for various commanders, many of whom are direct relatives of Saleh.
Military strategy has been sometimes uncoordinated and counter-productive. Dozens of government troops were killed in Miran when a three-day military bombing campaign repeatedly targeted areas of close engagement. When rebels cut the supply routes to the 17th Military division, stationed in Miran, the government took no action to re-supply the troops for 44 days. Nearing starvation, soldiers began calling local media demanding reinforcements and food.
In June, the war spread beyond Sa’ada when 400 rebels took refuge in Bani Hushaish, a city of 75,000, twelve miles outside the capital. The government shelled the city for several weeks and instituted a blockade. Hundreds of families fled the city with nowhere to go.
The Yemeni policy of food blockade began in 2004 and is intended to coerce the civilian population. One Yemeni official said, “When (the residents) begin to starve and their source of income is interrupted, they will eventually hand over the Houthis in their area.” Although officials made several announcements that Bani Huashaish has been cleared of “terrorist” elements, the sounds of shelling can be heard from the capital and the blockade remains in place.
The rebel force claims it is “completely opposed to attacks on civilians” and restricts itself to engaging military targets. However, in July a teen-ager detonated an explosive device at the entrance to a government complex in Sa’ada City, killing five. In the Saqeen district, a rebel sniper killed Colonel Mohsen Tabaza, the Deputy Commander of the First Infantry. Mohammed Al-Fadhli, head of the 10th Military Division’s training unit, was killed by a sniper in Al-Sama while surveying the area prior to a planned attack.
The United States affirmed recently that it does not classify the rebels in Yemen as terrorists. At the same time, the US regularly has expressed concern for the humanitarian toll of the fighting and urged both sides to allow urgently needed supplies of food, fuel and other necessities into the region.
The European Union allocated 1 million Euros to aid civilians displaced by the fighting. It is unclear when or how aid will reach the needy. Humanitarian groups are barred from most of the region for security concerns. The aid group Medicines Sans Frontiers was forced to suspend operations and abandon hospitals in June because of the numerous clashes involving heavy weaponry. The group expressed a high level of concern over the complete lack of medical care for civilians injured in the shelling and those displaced by the fighting. The International Committee of the Red Cross, noting the scarcity of clean water and food, also called for both sides to facilitate humanitarian aid shipments.
On a civil level, the number of “preventive arrests” is thought to be in the thousands and includes children as young as 10, who report being beaten by soldiers while in prison. On July 13, several civil society organizations protested in Yemen against the policy of arbitrary arrests. The National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms recently said, “This campaign of random arrests that mainly targets the Zaidi sect affiliates, clerics, students and rights activists will deepen the danger against social peace.”
The organization also noted the kidnapping of Khalid Alsharif, Yemeni-American citizen, as part of “a vast campaign that is against Hashimi people and Zaidies.” Other elements of civil targeting include use of the official media to label the rebels and sympathizers “Satanic” and to publicize fatwas issued against them, incitement from mosques, destroying religious books and banning a mainstream Zaidi holiday, al-Ghadir day. Zaidis make up about 30% of the Yemeni population.
Another prong of the civil campaign associated with the Saada war is censorship of the media. Local and foreign journalists have been excluded from the region since 2004. Several Yemeni reporters have faced judicial consequences for writing about the Sa’ada war, most notably Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani who was sentenced in June to six years in jail in a verdict that was widely condemned as a politicized. A similar clampdown on the Internet means many Yemeni news Web sites are inaccessible within Yemen and the public must rely on government sources alone for information.
President Saleh recently restated his accusation that the rebels are funded by Iran, Libya and “the centers of 12er Shia faith” in an effort to restore a Zaidi theocracy in Yemen. However, the rebellion sprung from and is mired in domestic politics and grievances. The rebels evoke their external own bogeyman, Saudi Arabia, which they claim is supporting the assault on Sa’ada. Added to the mix are the many Iraqi army officers in the Yemeni military since the fall of Saddam, who the rebels claim are instigating genocide against Sa’ada residents.
The rebels’ goals are unclear. While they oppose Yemen’s alliance with the US and chant “Death to America,” they have not joined with insurgent forces in Iraq or targeted US interests in Yemen. They claim President Saleh has been “trying to implant by force the Wahabbi school of thought in Zaidi areas” and that they are fighting a defensive war, opposed to dictatorship not republicanism. Along with these claims, comes a demand for substantial autonomy in the governorate.